I practiced law for many years as in-house counsel before “crossing over” to the business side. It was a natural evolution for me because I’ve always had an entrepreneurial mind, seeking out new challenges and building out ideas. As I took on more business roles I was introduced to a wide array of management and leadership concepts. One of the best was Jim Collins’ work in Good to Great. This month I’ll explain some of those concepts and consider how they apply to building a law practice.
1.Be a special kind of leader: Leaders of great organizations have incredible ambition, but it’s not for themselves. It’s for the organization. The leaders aren’t always charismatic. They have a unique balance of professional will and persona humility. These leaders focus on results and help those around them succeed. Great leaders take responsibility when things go wrong yet attribute success to the efforts of the team. Leadership isn’t something they teach us in law school – though many of us are leaders in our community and in the practice. No matter how good we are there is always the opportunity to learn new techniques to help us move from god to great.
2.Find the right “who”: Great companies start with superior executive team. Once the right people are assembled, “on the bus” they work together to figure out the path to greatness. This is very different than what Collins calls the “Genius with a thousand helpers” who sets the vision and roadmap and then enlists a crew to make the vision happen.
Collins found that whether someone is a great team member often has more to do with character and innate capability rather than specific knowledge or skills. Great management teams were made of people who were not afraid of vigorous debate to find the best answer, and then unified behind the decision regardless of their particular interest.
The traditional law firm management committee model certainly brings smart and capable attorneys together to oversee the firm. This is necessary but generally not sufficient to achieve greatness. The superior executive team will have people on the bus who collaborate, have excellent business acumen and the entrepreneurial spirit to achieve greatness. This is even more critical for small and mid-sized firms with limited resources.
3. Be a Hedgehog: Great companies simplify the complex into a single idea that guides all actions. These companies are like hedgehogs that focus on one big thing they can be the best in the world at – and then stick to it. Collins found that the “good” companies were more like foxes pursuing many ends at the same time but never putting their thinking together into a single unifying vision. He observed that great companies took a long time – up to 4 years – to finally settle on their concept and that when done properly it got results even in bad industries.
This is an important concept for all attorneys because it is something you can do for yourself in your practice even if you’re part of a larger organization. The key is to have the discipline and determination to pick the right focus for your and use it as your very own compass. Importantly this does not mean picking a simple practice area or that those firms can’t have a diverse practice.
To me the simple unifying idea for Collins work is “disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action.” To take action today you can (1) become a student of leadership; (2) surround yourself with people who challenge you, complement your skills, and make you think; and (3) begin developing or refine your special focus that brings it all together.